When you rattle off the list of marquee marksmen Ross Graham has faced in his short career, it tells the tale of a mountainous learning curve; Billy Sharp, Jermain Defoe, Kemar Roofe, Kevin Nisbet.
And the ambitious 20-year-old would have it no other way.
The Dundee United prospect, who last week joined Dunfermline on a season-long loan, cut his teeth during formative stints with Elgin City and title-chasing League One side Cove Rangers.
His campaign working under ex-Dundee boss Paul Hartley at the Balmoral Stadium last term was a particular trial by fire as Cove mounted a promotion challenge and faced Hibernian and Rangers in cup competition.
They lost both of those matches — 2-1 against the Hibees and 4-0 at Ibrox — but, with the benefit of time and hindsight, Graham can now cast a grateful glance at those contests and the calibre of striker he was charged with shackling.
“You want to be playing against top players like Kevin Nisbet and Jermain Defoe,” he said. “That is the standard of team you want to face as a young player. It was a really good learning curve for me.
“Playing against Sheffield United for Dundee United [summer 2020 friendly] was another good experience.
“It is more about the small things you pick up, really — how they try to get in your head and put you off. Guys like that are all so sharp and, with each level you step up, you have to be switched on constantly.
“You cannot drift for a moment or you lose a goal, ultimately. It was really good to see what the top professionals do up close, and the levels you need to reach to compete with the best.
“Defoe scored against us that day so that shut me up!
“But I thought that I developed a lot as a player last season. From the turn of the year, I kept my place in the team and I learned a lot about winning games because Cove were challenging at the top. Hopefully, I can bring that to Dunfermline and do the same here.”
‘Lawrence Shankland is a top striker’
While he can reflect on the lofty calibre of his opponents, Graham is at pains to point out that he had a Scotland striker to learn from and challenge himself against back at Dundee United’s St Andrew’s base.
“Playing against Hibs and Rangers is fantastic but even in training with Lawrence Shankland every day — you pick up a lot about movement and finishing, and you need to be concentrated all the time to stop him,” continued Graham.
“Lawrence is a top striker — you see that in every session — and it can only make you a better player to have had the experience of working with someone like that.”
Having penned a contract until the summer of 2024 with United prior to making the switch to Fife, Graham intends to ensure his year in the Championship proves a stepping stone to the Tannadice first-team.
We are delighted to confirm that Our Academy graduate Ross Graham has signed a three-year contract extension, keeping him at Tannadice until at least 2024.
— Dundee United FC (@dundeeunitedfc) July 1, 2021
With a clearly stated focus on youth development now in full force in Tayside, that appears a wholly realistic goal, with Graham adding: “They will send scouts to every game and get in contact with the club to see how I am getting on.
“I have played in League Two and then League One, so the next gradual step is the Championship and then the following season in the Premiership. I’m taking it bit-by-bit and hopefully I get to where I want to go in the end.”
Paul Watson’s professionalism
As he settles into his new surroundings, Graham will be able to call upon the nurturing influence of fellow central defender and former Dundee United club-mate Paul Watson.
It is clear that he holds the 2019/20 Championship-winner in the highest regard.
“Paul came in to United when I was a young boy and the way he acted on the training ground was really eye-opening for me, in how professional he was,” lauded Graham.
“Hopefully, I can learn even more from him because he is an experienced centre-half and a good guy. I played with him in the reserves a couple of times as well and he always talks you through games and helps you out.”
Such guidance will be pivotal if the Pars are to achieve their goal of winning the title; boss Peter Grant is nothing if not ambitious.
“We have a really good squad here so there is no reason why we can’t push at the top end of the table,” added Graham. “I need to get that winning mentality and hopefully it gets bedded into me here.”